Only his neighbor Jorge knew the old guy was sick. In fact, Mr. Casten had been failing for almost two years. Whenever Jorge saw the old man, he asked if there was anything he could do to help. When Mr. Casten was not seen for a week, Jorge would go knock on his door. If the old guy felt well enough he would stand in the doorway and talk for a while. If it was morning, he would invite Jorge in for a cup of coffee.
By the time Casten had passed away, Jorge probably knew him as well as anyone. Their little chats on the stairs, in the doorway or at the kitchen table revealed a lot about an old guy who had lived alone in the same small apartment most of his adult life. The place was stuffed with memories and memorabilia.
Mr. Casten had collected and saved things throughout life, but in the last few years he tried to de-clutter his small existence. He gave things away to charity resale shops. He sent pictures he had from his parents on to other relatives. He even sold some items on eBay. It was all too late to clean up the house, however. Mr. Casten’s small efforts were not enough after a lifetime of accumulation.
Since there were no siblings, no children, and no mate, the matter of cleanup and disposal was left to a crew of cousins. Jorge knew just who to call because Mr. Casten had prepared a list of contacts in case of his untimely demise. Although Mr. Casten was only in his late 60’s, his death arrived right on schedule the way Jorge saw it. Mr. Casten had gone as far as he could.
When the cousins arrived one Saturday morning to clean out the apartment, Jorge was waiting with the key that had been entrusted to him by Mr. Casten. Four cousins and two of their teen age sons figured they would make fast work of the four room apartment. They figured wrong.
“Oh my, who knew one person could collect so much stuff,” cousin Raymond declared. “This could take all day!”
“Mr. Casten said to tell you guys to be sure to take for yourselves anything you want, then give anything else that is still good to charity.”
“And did you take something, Jorge?” cousin David said in a rather accusing tone.
“Yes,” Jorge replied calmly. “I took the coffee cup he always gave me to drink out of. It was the only thing I wanted.”
“Well, I heard he had a good baseball card collection,” cousin Jeff chimed in. “I would like to have that if we can find it.”
“He’s got a lot of CDs here,” Raymond said in amazement. “I think I will see what I need.”
“Hey dad,” one of the teenagers shouted out to David. “He’s got a lot of DVDs. I am going to see if he has anything decent to watch”
As they randomly picked through the goods, cousin John grabbed one of the teenagers and said, “Let’s get to work. With those guys working so hard out there, we will never get out of here!”
So John and a bored teenager went to the kitchen in search of large garbage bags. “Under the sink,” Jorge instructed.
Armed with a box of bags, Jorge, John and the teenager went to the bedroom to empty closets and drawers. John told the teenager to take everything in the closets and put it in bags for donation. If it looked in bad shape, he should put it in a separate bag for the garbage. John decided to do the same with the dresser.
As John and Jorge took items from the dresser, they found many new things in each drawer. There were clothes with tags, new socks and underwear in packages, pajamas that were never worn and sweaters that looked new.
“I thought the old guy could not afford much,” John said in amazement.
“I think he was always afraid of running out of something,” Jorge said. “He told me more than once that he was afraid to be poor and have nothing, so he kept everything and did not use anything until he needed it.”
“If he lived another 10 years he would not have to buy any clothes,” John said somewhat incredulously.
“Yeah, I think that was the idea,” Jorge noted.
Mr. Casten’s mother had grown up in the Great Depression. She had nothing, so in her adult life she saved everything. Anything that had value or possible use, she would save for whenever she might need it. Of course, she had many things she never used, but they were there “just in case.”
When Casten was young, he knew they did not have much and he saw how his mother managed to get through the years with what they accumulated. He naturally took on the same habits. While everything may have seemed a jumbled mess to outside observers, especially cousins who never came to call, it was an organized home for Mr. Casten.
After many runs to the resale shop and the outside garbage cans, the crew had made a good deal of progress. John declared he would return with one of the boys to finish the job the next day.
“That box in the corner marked pictures should also say ‘Cousins’ on the top,” Jorge remembered to tell them. “You should take that with you.”
“What would we want with a box of old pictures?” David said rather sarcastically.
So Jorge explained that collection. “Mr. Casten thought that maybe someone would want to see them at a wake or service to remember how he looked, since he had not been invited to any family event in years. I would guess you guys would be in a lot of those pictures from long ago.”
The cousins said nothing. John grabbed the box on the way out.
Jorge closed the door.
See also: “The Accumulation of Stuff,” Reducing Clutter